Let's Talk About Sex: Colleges focus on consent, bystander intervention when educating students

Colleges tend to focus on two things in their sex-education programming: consent and bystander intervention.

I had a health teacher who taught with a sense of flair, and her condom demonstration was my favorite. While she took out a Lifestyle, many of us were privately reminded that we probably had never used one. My teacher unwrapped it and placed it over her hand with proper form. As she rolled the piece of rubber farther up her arm, gasps and giggles erupted across the 30-person classroom.

"No one really needs a Magnum!" she said.

There was more to this lesson than just a way to put to rest the myth of inflated penis sizes—according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) survey from 2013, only 47 percent of high school students have had sexual intercourse, and out of 34 percent of those who had intercourse in the last three months, 41 percent did not use condoms the last time they had sex—but overall the condom trick alone could not remedy the kind of superficial sex education that students receive in high school which ill prepares them for college life.

Jacq Jones, owner of Sugar, a sex-toy shop in Hampden, speaks to college students across the city about "hot, safer sex." She's found that "it's not uncommon for college students to enter college with a really good understanding of how to not get HIV, but with very limited knowledge about the rest of the sexually transmitted infections out there that they're frankly more likely to get."

According to the CDC, Maryland has one of the highest rates of HIV infections in the nation, and it has some of the more comprehensive health goals when it comes to HIV. Across the country, state standards on all sex education fall somewhere between Florida's mandated stress on abstinence and Colorado's inclusive coverage of sexual orientation.

Even the best sex education curricula might not cover topics such as consent, good sex, and healthy relationships with the same vigor as HIV prevention. Contraception and STIs (other than HIV), which fit squarely within the realm of high school sex ed, are oftentimes neglected. For those who go on to college, their schools are faced with a pool of students with varying degrees of sex education, much of it insufficient, and those schools are in a position to fill in those gaps.

Colleges, like high schools, tend to place a premium on a specific area of sex education. Whether this is because of time constraints, limited monetary resources, a conscious exclusion of certain topics, or something different, that premium, must-have programming is often the same: consent and bystander intervention.

The bulk of consent education programming, made mandatory by a 2013 amendment to the Clery Act, happens during freshman and transfer-student orientation in the fall. At Loyola University Maryland, unlike other Baltimore city schools, administrators present this training to students. For both MICA and Johns Hopkins University, outside groups give these presentations.

Loyola's program places a strong emphasis on consent and sexual misconduct, with students required to attend large group sessions on the subject when they first arrive during Freshman Orientation. The programming is part of a larger presentation on community and safety, but doesn't include any specific information about sex education.

Last year MICA brought on Jones of Sugar to lead the Safe Sex and Consent Education program, a choice that Michael Z. Patterson, vice president of MICA's student affairs department and dean of students, says was the result of staff connections with Jones, who had worked with the school in other capacities. But 2014 was the first year that she led the first-year orientation session. JHU employs Sex Signals, a nationally known theater and improv-based program that focuses on consent, rape culture, and bystander intervention.

While Loyola keeps a detailed head count of who does and doesn't attend these large group sessions, MICA does not, although they do say it is mandatory for all new students. However, according to Patterson, the purpose of such programming is not to educate every single student, but to reach a "critical mass" of participation.

"We're gonna then have enough people out there talking the right talk, knowing the expectations, having made that sort of promise to themselves and their community that they'll raise the tide," Patterson says.

All three programs are interactive to varying degrees. This ensures that the students who do attend are engaged in the lessons, which is why many colleges and universities develop or seek out programming with audience interaction.

With a group of students who may not have been exposed to candid talks about consent or healthy sex before, special techniques are necessary to keep, and hold, their attention. Particularly during orientation where the sessions are often presented to large groups, the key lies in finding ways to engage audiences, rather than relying on a "spray and pray" method, says Gail Stern, co-founder and owner of Catharsis Productions and an original co-author of the Sex Signals program.

"Comedy's sort of like the spoonful of sugar that helps somebody open up to the next piece. I don't hesitate to be serious at any point; but I need to make sure that people are listening first," Jones says. "There's certainly laughter, but there's also, 'this is the real deal, this is the important stuff.'"

Another way to ensure engagement is to keep the group as small as possible. Stern says that her company will not present Sex Signals to a crowd larger than 300 individuals. Similarly, Loyola organizes mandatory discussions in small groups with administrators that are held after the larger group lectures, in order to give students an opportunity to ask questions about the programing.

MICA and JHU also have smaller programs, which are optional, that delve deeper into the topics of good sex, consent, and communication as a way to build healthy relationships.

JHU's Center for Health Education and Wellness (CHEW) organizes Pillow Talk, a discussion group for both cisgender and transgender women to talk about masturbation, healthy relationships, consent, and contraception in a safe space, and Want to Have Sex: Consent 101, another group that teaches consent education focused on the "yes means yes" rhetoric. Both are led by administrators during orientation, though the former is sometimes led by student leaders if groups on campus, namely resident assistants, request it.

MICA's Sex in the Dark program consists of a panel discussion that usually runs about two hours during which sexperts, staff from the counseling or student life departments, and even students gather to answer questions from the student body. Patterson describes it as "very vibrant and straightforward," as the program works to create a space where students do not feel embarrassed or ashamed in discussing sexuality. To Jones, a repeat Sex in the Dark participant, creating such spaces is vital when you want to talk about consent, too.

"A really core part of [talking about good sex] is consent. Having sex that you feel good about the next day is also really important," Jones says. "For some people that's celibacy, and for other people, that's a consensual, well-negotiated gangbang. Whatever that looks like, that's great, but it needs to be consensual and intentional."

The groups are small, and sometimes anonymous or limited by gender; they are designed to be cognizant of the discomfort that some students might feel when asked to talk about sex with a group of relative strangers.

"As a culture we aren't taught to talk about sex even when we're having it," says Alyse Campbell, the prevention, education, and response coordinator at JHU. "When we're asking people to talk about sex, people can be a little uncomfortable about it."

Here, consent becomes important when considering the ways in which culture affects how young people think about sexuality. It's something that Jones tries to instill in her audiences as a foundational takeaway.

"Make sure that you're engaging in spaces where, and with people, who are able to hear a 'no' and respect a 'no' as a gift, rather than throwing it back in somebody's face," Jones says.

A growing emphasis on bystander intervention among colleges' student life and related departments reflects an effort to make the college bubble safer for students. Bystander intervention refers to a strategy that enables individuals to de-escalate or defuse a situation that they are not immediately involved in, especially in regard to potential episodes of sexual assault.

According to Stern, the period between fall orientation and Thanksgiving break is when college freshmen are most vulnerable to sexual assault. Sometimes, all of the consent training doesn't protect against those perpetrators who don't care to get consent, as opposed to those who just don't know what to look for. Others may also find it difficult to justify why intervention is important in these situations, especially if reputation or peer pressure is at play.

"You have to identify the very real barriers, the social pressures that are incredibly powerful, especially for a freshman, let alone anybody else," Stern says. "It's a way of reinforcing that we're on notice as a community to protect the vulnerable, period. And that helps us get around some of the victim blaming that we hear, and honestly the victim blaming has been an excuse for people not to take action."

Both Loyola and MICA use Green Dot, a sexual violence prevention organization, to train their students in bystander intervention; these programs are not mandatory, but go hand in hand with the lessons students learn through consent-focused programming.

"I think coupled with [consent] is the bystander component of making sure that people are looking out for each other and community, and when they see a situation that could become high risk, even before it is high risk, that they're just checking in, and taking care of each other," Christina Spearman, director of student affairs at Loyola, says.

Both Loyola and JHU note that their bystander intervention programs aim to influence the culture on their campuses to one that promotes a sort of collective responsibility needed to keep school safe. But MICA feels differently.

"I think we do a good job of encouraging our students to stand up and to speak their mind and to share their thoughts. Whether that comes through in leadership roles or if that comes through in their artwork," Trenton Nettles, health promotions educator at MICA, says. "I think that culture's already here."

While colleges must consider the social and financial liabilities of a student population uneducated in consent and sex education, only police departments, a reactionary body, exists for the post-college world. Post-graduation, thousands of young adults might need to fall back on their Green Dot training at a bar with their fellow co-workers, or even acquaintances, who might not have received the intensive consent education necessary to bolster training on how to have physically healthy sex.

"We think the message is good for everybody. Hopefully it's something that students can carry on with them," Campbell says of JHU's own bystander-intervention programing, which was adapted from Duke's PACT program. "We would really like students to be part of a cultural shift that isn't permissive of gender violence." 

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